The Bow, the Buck, & Thoreau

What deer hunting and the transcendentalist teach us about our relationship with nature.

[by Ford Van Fossan]

A son of Robinson Crusoe having never seen a tennis racket, might get along nicely without one, but he would be pretty sure to hunt or fish whether or not he was taught to. —Aldo Leopold, A Sand County Almanac

Before dawn, always before dawn, the old truck rumbles down the road, complaining bitterly as I shift into third gear. I pull off onto the logging road and kill the engine, engulfed now by the greater darkness of the big woods. Out of ritual, I rub my boots and clothes with damp duff from the forest floor, a feeble attempt to fool a sense of smell I can’t even fathom. A short walk past ghostly fl ashes,and the stand comes into view. I climb up, nock an arrow, and settle in to watch the dawn.

Time in the woods isn’t measured in minutes and hours. Instead it passes with the maniacal laugh of the woodpecker, the flitting silver tail of a fox squirrel, or the twittering explosion of a dove’s wings. Consequently,I cannot tell you how the hands of the clock are positioned when I first become aware of the buck. I can merely say that it was soon after an eagle swooped low over the canopy, whistling confidently. But then,70 yards out, there he is, a buck moving quietly through the tapestry of gray trunks.

“I lock my trigger hand behind my head and wait. Though the deer may not know it, the next move belongs to him.”

Technically, my body is flooding with adrenaline, yet this doesn’t accurately encompass the intensity of the anticipation and the excitement of the moment. Some call it buck fever. To me, it is raw vitality. In any case, it amounts to a narrowed perception of life. The bow, the buck, and some thick oaks bound all existence.

Still moving closer, the deer drifts behind some thick hollies: an opportunity. I rise and quickly draw, cringing at the deafening noise the arrow makes as it slides over the guides. And then, holding the bow out straight, I lock my trigger hand behind my head and wait. Though the deer may not know it, the next move belongs to him.

He ought to emerge on the other side of the hollies. Trouble is, deer rarely do what they ought to. He loiters in the thicket. A flock of geese passes overhead. I can feel my feet shaking. He changes directions, strolling leisurely to the right, coming into range. A nuthatch rudely cheeps above me. But now I have been drawn too long. My arm begins to tremble with fatigue, and I realize I’ve already lost him. I loose a shot well over his gray back, and the arrow thuds in the duff. The buck bolts.

Henry David Thoreau wasn’t a deer hunter. In fact, there probably weren’t any deer left in the woods surrounding his cabin at Walden Pond. And yet I sense that he, too,felt the power of consumptive interaction with the natural world.